“Silent Night” Turns 200

One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.

Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.

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Like the town where it resides, the Silent Night Chapel is pretty, tiny and quaint.

The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.

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Picture this times 30 million. Note that only Gruber is credited.

The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.

Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).

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Two guys that could really sing but didn’t know where to put “Silent Night” on the record!

All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.

1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.

“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.

Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.

The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.

Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.

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Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.

Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.

The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.

Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.

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Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.

Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.

Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.

Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.

Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:

https://www.stillenacht.com/en/

http://www.visit-salzburg.net/surroundings/silentnightchapel.htm

http://stillenacht-oberndorf.com/

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But Beautiful: Your Guide to Nat Cole

If pressed, a lot of people nowadays, but certainly not all, could name three or four singers of American popular standards. One name they would probably be able to come up with would be Nat ‘King’ Cole. Most people would know the name, the fact that Natalie Cole was his daughter and that he sang Christmas music. But there is SO much more going on with Nat Cole that needs to be known and appreciated. As opposed to an in depth look at his life and career, what I propose to present is a quick run-through, focusing on the wonderful music he recorded and how it varied throughout his tenure as one of the smoothest voices in popular song. Lastly, I’d like to run down, in order, the ten greatest recordings of the man born Nathaniel Coles.

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There are a few key things about Nat Cole that I would present to a beginner who is wanting to know what all the fuss is about and who is wanting to know what to listen to based on their interests. The first thing I like to point out – the thing that perhaps makes Cole cooler than anything else – is that, at the beginning of his career, he was a jazz pianist. And he was good. He was a student of the recordings of the great Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Cole was considered one of the leading jazz pianists of the late 1940’s-early 1950’s. So much so that he was the featured pianist on the original “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts originated by Norman Granz that featured all-star line-ups of the finest jazz musicians in the land. Also notable is the make-up of Cole’s early trio – piano, guitar and bass. Those three instruments in particular (no drums) was a unique set up especially in the big band era and it was emulated by many combos that emerged later. It’s amazing to think that, with a voice like his, Nat originally sang only occasionally. Legend has it that he sang live for the first time because a drunken customer demanded it. Nat sang “Sweet Lorraine” and was tipped 15 cents. The recordings of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio – with or without vocals – are wonderful. They present perfect, smooth, small combo jazz. It’s only Nat’s tremendous success later as a vocalist that somewhat relegates this part of his career to the background. In 1942, songwriter Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records and a year later Johnny signed Nat and the trio to the label and they began enjoying great success there. The trio was so successful that the revenue from their record sales propelled Capitol to the forefront of the record business, allowing them to build the famous Capitol Tower as a home base. The world’s first circular office building is often referred to as ‘the House That Nat Built’.

By the early-to-mid 1950’s, Nat had – unfortunately, some jazz purists lamented – jettisoned the small group sound and stepped to the fore as one of the premier proponents of the smooth vocal pop tune with orchestral accompaniment. In 1953, Nat scored a hit of immortal proportions with his first recording with an orchestra: “The Christmas Song”. Many hit singles followed and Nat was paired with all the major arrangers of the day: Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May. He delivered album after album of sublime vocals. Indeed, you could look at Nat Cole as an ‘album artist’. Yes, he placed many tunes on the charts (28 top 40 hits between 1954 and 1964) but his main contribution to traditional pop or jazz vocal is a string of excellent albums with great arrangers and attractive album covers.

Nat Cole was a pioneering black entertainer. He became one of the first African American’s to host his own show – “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” aired for a year starting in 1956. The show was well done and featured many big stars of the day but it could not maintain sponsorship as many brands were hesitant to support so visibly a black artist, even one as universally loved as Nat Cole. Finally, Nat had to shut the show down. Referring to the inability to maintain sponsorship, Nat quipped notably “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark”. Nat was a quiet and gentle crusader for equal rights. He was an inspiration to all black entertainers at the time. Nat had married singer Maria Ellington and eventually had five children, two of them adopted. During his peak years, Nat moved his family to a affluent neighbourhood in Los Angeles where they were met with hostility from their neighbours. Nat attended a community meeting at which a spokesmen boldly stood up and proclaimed that the area did not want any “undesirables”. Nat responded by rising and saying “Neither do I. If I see any undesirables, I’ll let you know”. Nat’s home was vandalized (racial slurs burned into the lawn) and a family pet was killed (poison meat thrown over the fence). Nat soldiered on, dignity intact.

Into the 1960s, Nat began to work with lesser known arrangers and orchestrators. The results yielded many additional hits – “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” – but the old-timey, sing-along quality of this period represented the nadir of Nat’s recordings. Even still, with his vocal charm, he was able to squeeze out a couple more charming tracks. He does a version of “The Girl from Ipanema” on the last album released during his lifetime that is excellent and “Let Me Tell You Babe” is a track released after his death that purists probably hate as it has a late-60’s-pop-soft-rock sound to it but I like it. Throughout his career, Nat had been one of the sharpest dressed cats in the business, always in a sharp suit or sweater, sometimes sporting a fedora – and always, but always, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder. This wretched vice became the undoing of Nat ‘King’ Cole. You have to understand that – and if you look into it, you’ll see it’s true – everybody loved Nat Cole. All reports indicate that there was not a classier person in show business. A loving husband and father, he quietly blazed a trail for black artists and was a genuine human being. When Nat fell ill in the early 1960’s, many friends and associates expressed their concern to him. The hazards of nicotine were not as widely known as they are today and people were simply worried that his constant smoking would wreck his voice and his health. A visit to the doctor confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis. The historic Surgeon General’s report confirming the negative effects of cigarette smoke was issued in January of 1964. Nat Cole received his death sentence 9 months later. The disease progressed rapidly and Nat was confined to hospital. He left one last time for an afternoon drive in February of ’65 looking gaunt and aged. He graciously allowed photographers to take pictures of him and his wife outside the hospital. As Mr. and Mrs. Cole drove away, the photographers wept.

Nat ‘King’ Cole died on Valentines Day, 1965. In his last days, he reportedly pressed his doctors to get him well so that he could tell people to quit smoking. His cancer death – along with the Surgeon’s General report – were early events in the worldwide crusade against the evils of smoking and it’s link to cancer. While he was not without his transgressions, Nat Cole was truly and dearly loved by his family, his friends, all of his contemporaries, the press, the recording industry and fans the world over. His legacy is unique and his gifts to all of us are immense.

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Let’s return to that which never dies; the music. You have to be careful with record companies. They will often stick with an established and well-known group of songs and – with little deviation – reissue these tracks ad nauseum. Beware the many redundant ‘greatest hits’ packages. It seems, with Cole, that many of his most popular “hits” are actually some of his most mediocre recordings. Keep in mind that, as you scan this list, you may not see songs you thought you would. In compiling this list, I took many things into consideration and I found that sometimes ‘immense worldwide familiarity’ did not necessarily indicate a quality recording. Not only are there many Cole songs you know by heart and you don’t need me to tell you about them but also, as I’ve said, the recordings embraced by the masses don’t always represent high quality material. Helping you to know what is good based on what you like (trio jazz or pop vocal) is the goal of this list of the ten greatest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

10. “Baby, Baby All the Time” (1946)  This track from the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio was written by Bobby Troup. I notice that the little known Troup penned two songs in this top ten. Better known as the husband of chanteuse Julie London and as Dr. Joe Early on “Emergency!”, Troup wrote jazzy little numbers for small jazz combo settings and Cole and company introduced this track which quickly became a jazz standard. It’s gentle gait and pleading lyrics are straight down the Trio’s alley. It’s a cozy piece that serves as a delightful example of what Cole and his trio did best.

9.  “That’s All” (1953)  Written in 1952 by singer Dick Haymes’ younger brother, Bob, here’s another standard that was introduced by Nat. This song is unique in that it really had no initial ‘hit’ phase and instead went straight to ‘standard’. Bobby Darin helped popularize it when he presented it as the energetic title track of a 1959 album. Nat’s version was one of his early successes with the great conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle’s name is synonymous with the very best recordings of Frank Sinatra but the Chairman himself has said that it was Nat’s records with Nelson like “That’s All” that made him want to work with the arranger. This recording of Cole’s is sublime and is an early example of him plying the sound that would become his trademark.

8. “Answer Me, My Love” (1954)   This song has it’s origins as a German piece to which English lyrics were added. It was a hit in 1953 for both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine. Another of Cole’s outings with Nelson Riddle, Nat had the best-selling version of the song which was popular throughout 1954. It is another marriage of the very finest of Cole’s ballad singing and absolutely gorgeous strings and orchestra directed by Riddle. The chorus of white, female voices detracts from it only slightly. Like “That’s All” before it, this track is quintessential, sigh-worthy Nat Cole balladry. Celestial.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (rec. December 15, 1943)  Perhaps the oldest song on this list, “Sweet Lorraine” was written in the late 1920’s and featured lyrics by Mitchell Parish who also contributed the words to such perennials as “Stardust”, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sleigh Ride”. It is another song that has become a jazz standard. This is a significant recording in Nat Cole’s oeuvre. Earlier recordings than the 1943 edition I’ve chosen here represent the first of Nat Cole’s truly fine vocals. Singing this song early on in clubs gave audiences their first taste of Cole’s fine voice and provided him with an opportunity and the confidence to hone his vocal skills. This Trio recording from ’43 – like “Baby, Baby…” – is just another fine example of this small group at it’s subtly swinging best. You can notice a slight lisp that never gave Nat much of a problem – except when he sang “Sweet Lorraine”. Listen for him to sing “I’m as happy as a baby boy playing with a brand new choo-choo choy” – as opposed to “toy”. Three years after this recording, Frank Sinatra recorded a version also employing the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio’s intimate sound. After Cole’s death, Tony Bennett sang “Sweet Lorraine” in tribute on his “If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set” album (1965).

6. “L-O-V-E” (1964)  Our first selection on this list from the latter part of Cole’s career. Actually, the last part. “L-O-V-E” is the title track of the final album of Nat’s to be released during his lifetime. He finished making the album with his final recording sessions in December of ’64. This means that this swinging number was recorded so sublimely by Nat when he was already sick with the disease that would take his life only months later. This track was written by legendary German Bandleader Bert Kaempfert and Nat, again, was the first to sing it. Although any list of the finest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole will undoubtedly be laden with ballads, the cat could swing, as this song attests. It starts off gently trotting and sounding like Bobby Darin’s “Hello, Dolly!” and then – also like the Darin track – builds to a brash climax. It is a joy to sing along to and is a prime example of how good Cole was at uptempo material.

5. “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946)  I realized as I was compiling this list that Nat Cole can give Fred Astaire a run for his money when it comes to introducing some of the most enduring songs in the history of American popular music. Here he is again with his Trio being the first to record another standard written by Bobby Troup. In this case, the song is considered to be an R&B standard and has been covered by an extensive and varied list of artists: Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Them, Depeche Mode, the Cramps and John Mayer. Cole’s first version with his trio is an uptempo swinger featuring lyrics about traveling the expanse of the American country side on the famed highway. It is one of the very few quintessential Cole recordings not only in terms of quality but also popularity. An absolute delight featuring Cole in great voice and displaying his light-fingered chops on the keys.

4. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943)  A companion piece to “Route 66”.  Many similarities exist between these two seminal Trio recordings. The main difference being that while this is also a song that Cole introduced to the world before it became a standard, this was one that he actually wrote himself. He took the lyrics from an old, black folk tale that Cole’s father – a Baptist minister – had used as a basis for a sermon. A lighthearted vocal from Nat is paired with the Trio’s charming brand of breezy small combo jazz. The song’s popularity has been sustained through uses in the 2010 video game “Mafia II” and more recently in the TV series “This Is Us”.

3. “That Sunday, That Summer” (1963)  And here we are at probably the only recording on this list that I would really have to defend. This song was published in 1963 and, as far as I can tell, Nat Cole was, again, the first to record it. The problem is it appeared on his “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” album, the title track of which went to #6 for Nat in the spring of ’63. He followed that up with an album of the same name made of turn-of-the-last-century sounding songs singing the praises of summer. A lot of banjo. The album was successful for Nat but it is a good example of one of those times when public adoration did NOT mean quality work. The title track is delightful but this old-timey setting simply does not mesh well with Nat’s dulcet tones. The exception is “That Sunday, That Summer”. This is the only track on this list that charted in the top 40 on the pop charts during the “modern era” of the tracking of chart activity which began in 1954-55. Fittingly, in September of ’63, after summer frolicking had given way to autumn studies, the nostalgic “That Sunday” spent 9 weeks on the charts peaking at #12. The banjo is present but subdued and adds to the wistful nature of the lyric and compliments Nat’s dreamy vocal. Again, we’re assaulted with an inappropriate chorus of angelic female voices but it doesn’t matter here. The track never appears on any compilations you’ll find at the record store but that just supports my theory that the real ‘best of Nat’ is not that easily found. Seek out this gorgeous number and drift away.

2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1961)  Here’s a song that deserves it’s own post. Let’s just take it slow and from the beginning. This song was written by singer Mel Torme and Bob Wells. It was written on an exceedingly hot day in an effort to keep cool. Here’s also another example of a new song making it’s way to Nat Cole first. The Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio recorded the song first in 1946. Cole then convinced Capitol to let him record it again months later but this time with a small string section – an auger of things to come for Nat. This second version became a massive hit on pop and R&B charts. Cole again recorded an orchestral version during his productive year of 1953 with Nelson Riddle. Nat’s fourth recording of it took place at Capitol Studios in March of 1961 with the Ralph Carmichael Orchestra. This is the version that you hear every Christmas. Cole issued a Christmas LP in 1960 called “The Magic of Christmas” and then, in 1963 while his newest version of “The Christmas Song” was becoming legendary, Capitol decided to reissue “The Magic of Christmas” as “The Christmas Song”, adding the new title track and deleting “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. This version of his Christmas album (complete with new cover replacing white kids admiring tree with Nat chilling in sweater by the fire) has sold untold scores of copies and is still a seasonal favourite. (All this, of course, makes Nat’s “God Rest Ye Merry” the ‘lost carol’!) “The Christmas Song” – the track – is sublime but here’s the funny thing: Nat Cole has an incredibly huge rep as a ‘Christmas artist’ but the truth is that the rest of “The Christmas Song” album is quite boring and plain and since Nat never again recorded a full album of Christmas music this means that his huge Christmas rep is based solely on these three minutes of absolute perfection. There may be no finer recording in Nat’s catalog than his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song”. From the opening two notes, this tune manages to encapsulate all the warmth, peace and joy, all the emotion of the Christmas season. Nat’s vocal is the pinnacle of excellence and the unheralded Ralph Carmichael provides an appropriately lush setting featuring a wonderfully mellow guitar solo. It conjures up all the wonderful feelings usually associated with a night in late December relaxing in a warm room lit only by your Christmas tree and surrounded by those you love. The only reason it’s not number one on this list is because it would’ve been too easy. It benefits so much from these external things.

#1 “Stardust” (1957)  “The Christmas Song” is a resplendent recording. However, part of it’s immense charm certainly comes from the Christmas season itself and all of our thoughts, feelings and memories regarding it. “Stardust” does to you what that Christmas classic does to you but all on it’s own. “Stardust” is the aural manifestation of Nat ‘King’ Cole in all his glory. This standard among standards was written in 1927 by the great Hoagy Carmichael (who not only wrote great songs but possessed one of the greatest names in history) with lyrics added by Mitchell Parish. It is one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century with 1,500 recordings of it to date. Nat recorded his version in December of 1956 for his album “Love is the Thing”. The orchestral accompaniment for this album was arranged for strings alone and conducted by the great Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins provides strings so lush that “Stardust” takes on an ethereal quality. It seems to drift down out of the heavens. Nat does well with any type of material but his legacy and his strength is definitely ballad singing and “Stardust” is the quintessence of this strength and represents one of the peak experiences of vocal balladry in the history of recorded sound. It is that good. “Love is the Thing” was the first of four albums Nat would make with Gordon Jenkins. This album was one of the earliest stereo albums made at a time when such albums were made specifically for a niche stereo hi-fi market. The album was also very successful for Nat reaching #1 on the charts while “Stardust”, released as a single, reached #79. What more can be said? It is a flawless vocal performance wrapped in a plush and almost surreal environment of dreamlike beauty. The album is perhaps the finest single moment in either Nat’s or Gordon’s career and provides us with the finest example of the art of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

In compiling this list one of the many things I discovered is that looking at single recordings maybe isn’t the best way to explore Nat Cole. As Bennett has said, it’s about the catalog, the whole, as opposed to single moments. Nat’s entire career is a joy. Do yourself a favour and grab an album – not a compilation – of his. You won’t be disappointed.

Honourable Mentions: “Unforgettable”, “Walking My Baby Back Home”, “Mona Lisa”, “Embraceable You”, “When I Fall in Love”, “Too Young”, “Somewhere Along the Way”, “Say It Isn’t So”, “Lights Out”